Driven to distraction?

Charles 29 Comments



Posted by Vale

I am a celebrant of the tribe of IOCF (lapsed). We have a short creed that describes a Civil Funeral, it goes:

A Civil Funeral is driven by the wishes, beliefs and values of the deceased and their family, not by the beliefs or ideology of the person conducting the funeral. It sits between a religious service and a humanist funeral.

We swing both ways, you might say. The question is, how far should we swing?

I have been asked to lead services recently that are effectively religious services: two hymns, the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer (suitably non-denominational and non-specific ) at committal too.

The rationale for the family seems to be that they have no living connection with a church, but they want the trappings and reassurance of something very traditional. They also, I think, want to feel in control of the process. I am a reassuring presence, because they are commissioning me.

The services themselves are lovely – warm and full of comfort…but something niggles at me. When does responding to a family’s wishes become a masquerade? When should you call for the priest?


  1. Charles

    Excellent question, Vale, and one to which I am sure there are many answers.

    I believe that the answer lies in the very last thing a vicar does at the end of a funeral service, and that is pronounce the blessing of God, to be amongst YOU. That is, the vicar or priest is God’s representative on earth, and therefore has the entitlement to pronounce his (His) blessing.

    Whether a lay person, such as a civil celebrant, should pronounce this blessing is arguable. I’ve seen them do it, but my own opinion is that they shouldn’t. The way round it is the same as a lay person in church does, to pronounce God’s blessing to be amongst US. A subtle but significant difference.

    As a funeral director, this is the criteria I use when trying to advise clients who are wavering between a religious and a civil funeral. Do you require, or see a significance, in having God’s blessing bestowed UPON you at the end of the service?

    This could be the reason that nearly 80% of the funerals I arrange are civil…

  2. Charles

    Interesting question, Vale.

    It must be hard to make the call. Or should the call always be down to the family?

    Is the trouble sometimes that the family hasn’t thought deeply enough about whether they want civil or religious?

    Do they, therefore, put undue pressure on both religious and civil celebrants to swing?

    How far have you swung in the past? Have you ever donned a robe?!

  3. Charles

    Very good question Vale. And it’s not just about where we would draw the religious line. Ultimately, despite the claim we might make that it’s all about what the client wants/believes, there are lots of things I would not say/do/wear. Fitting is a good word.
    Is it fitting that I wear jeans and a t-shirt?
    Is it fitting that we play a rap song with swearing?
    Is it fitting that I (an atheist) bless you?
    Is it fitting that I (a Christian but not an ordained clergyman) commend your dad’s body to God’s keeping?
    Is it fitting that I take the opportunity to have a go at your sister because she didn’t visit your mum as often as you did?
    We are professional celebrants and we should be there to advise. And that includes recommending a priest when our clients clearly need a bit more God than we feel qualified to give them.

  4. Charles

    Never a robe, Richard – that would be too much for my plain dissenting ancestors.
    I think your question really gets to the heart of the issue, though: are we civils beyond the tribalism of belief? Do we see need and simply respond to people wherever they are? Or are we beneath belief, mercenaries and hired guns willing to adopt any position the client requests?
    I love the subtlety of Andrews distinction – between acting as the voice of a congregation and standing at the front and speaking for god. It’s something a dissenter would recognise too.

  5. Charles

    Fitting is a very good word.

    A priest derives his/authority from the role, which is to act in persona Christi — in the person of Christ “in virtue of which [priests] represent the person of Jesus Christ before their people, acting at the same time as representatives of their people before God”. (Pope Pius XII). This is not an act of role-playing – impersonation; the priest is, at that transcendent, sacramental moment, the personification of Christ (not him/herself, and not one of us).

    Secular celebrants do not and may not personify any Higher Power. They are role-players, chameleons, jobbing actors, ‘one of us’ for the duration — if they choose to undertake the role if that means playing Tupac. The one role they have no authority to play is that of Christ because of course that authority has not been vested in them.

    So, Vale, I would venture this: Me being one of them is perfectly okay; me being Jesus is no-go. To pray is to vocalise words; to bless is something else unless the blessing is in the form of an invocation (as in the Andrew analysis).

    A funeral is not a sacramental occasion — you don’t need an ordained minister to run the show.

    Difficult to have a rule of thumb which asks: What would Jesus think?

    I am now lost. Richard, come in please… Richard?

    1. Charles

      A brief digression from this interesting subject. Ru, I’ve felt underdressed at a funeral because my suit wasn’t dark grey enough! I’m reminded of those H. M. Bateman’s cartoons featuring comically exaggerated reactions to minor social gaffes, such as ‘The Man Who Lit His Cigar Before the Loyal Toast’ or ‘The Man Who Threw A Snowball At Saint Moritz’. How about ‘The Man Who Turned Up To A Funeral in Jeans’. Or if HMB moved in somewhat different circles today? ‘The Man Who Said Grace Before The BHA Winterval Dinner’.

    2. Charles

      Ru – I was playing devil’s advocate (LOL). I’ve never been asked to wear jeans and t-shirt (I’d love to for the right circumstances) but was once asked to dress as a French maid. I politely declined. However I have played rap songs with swear words etc. but I draw the line at blessing/commending to god.

  6. Charles

    Charles, this is good stuff!

    A couple of points: Pope Pius was only referring to Catholic priests being Persona Christi, not all Christian clergy. So the him/herself isn’t applicable as Catholicism doesn’t allow women priests.

    Pius was also only referring to this unique and temporary change of status by those ordained by the sacrament of holy orders when priests are transubstantiating the Host at the Eucharistic sacrament of Mass. Catholic priests are not Persona Christi when preaching their homily, for example.

    A Catholic funeral is only a sacrament when it includes Holy Communion within a Requiem Mass. Many Catholic funerals and indeed weddings (nuptial masses) exclude the Eucharist from these services.

    Aside from the Holy Eucharist, a Catholic mass also has plenty of lay involvement: you don’t need to be ordained to be a reader of one of the lessons or the prayers of intercession, for example.

    This leads to the conclusion that there’s scope for civil celebrants and lay family members to include religious aspects in their services, to pray for the souls of the departed, sing a hymn, read from the Bible.

    The question is back to conscience. If a celebrant has strong atheist convictions, he/she might at some point not feel comfortable with the religious emphasis.

  7. Charles

    Personally (and speaking from the hallowed heights of no authority whatsoever) I think this comes down to authenticity. I think a celebrant who does something that is not authentic to themselves is not doing the best possible job for a client. If the position of the celebrant is that of a pure materialist secular humanist then if they lead prayers then they are, to a certain extent, being dishonest. This is what concerns me about BHS celebrants including ‘a bit’ of religion’. (Do jump in here and explain why I’m wrong!) The celebrant who does the majority of our funerals is a liberal Christian Minister. He suits most families (who do not have a tie to a particular church) brilliantly. He will not do a funeral with no religion at all because that is not authentic to him. We found ourselves in a position recently where a family asked for a particular vicar because he had once worked with their father (who had died). However, both the father and the family were atheists (we saw this coming, it was a bit like watching a car crash in slow motion)…they reached a negotiated truce (Lord’s Prayer and a blessing) before the service and then actually during the service, in front of everyone, the vicar said ‘Despite the wishes of the family I am going to conduct a proper Christian Funeral.’ Arrgggghhhh! I would far rather he had been authentic to himself and said he was sorry but he could not lead the funeral. For an agnostic to lead paryers etc is entirely acceptable, I think, as long as it does not lead them to feel uncomfortable. Also (a personal hobby horse) there is a big difference between ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ and it is possible to have an atheist funeral that is very spiritual indeed.
    What is comes down to, I think (and one of the functions of a good FD) is that there has to be a ‘good match’ between the family and the celebrant in terms of personality and beliefs. A celebrant who is effectively ‘lying’ cannot be doing themselves any good, apart from anything else and mighht be well advised to say that someone else would be better suited on this occasion.
    Andrew’s point about the blessing (and, to a lesser extent, committal) is a good one and, I think, an excellent rule of thumb.

  8. Charles

    Heck, this is getting hard – way beyond the capabilities of my small brain. Thank you, Richard.

    I guess it comes down to whether or not the audience looks to the celebrant to dispense juju of some sort — a spell which he/she is not authorised to cast. That’s the moment when a celebrant must send for the shaman/witch doctor/priest/imam/druid.

    As to prayers and hymns, that’s just a question of sidelining the ego, which is indispensable to role-playing. No spell-casting there.

    As to A Celeb questioning what is fitting, I suppose him/her to be saying that a celeb is entitled to turn down the role if the drama isn’t, in their eyes, fit for purpose. Fair enough, too.

  9. Charles

    To re iterate Jenny’s point, surely it has a lot to the FD to have a good chat with the family involved and work out with them who is the most appropriate person to take the service. I would be very uncomfortable in instructing a civil celebrant who I knew didn’t have a strong faith to take a service that was likely to have a fair degree of religious content. (Or the other way round, asking the local vicar to take a service with no reference to God!) Luckily in our area we have several celebrants with varying degrees of faith who can, subject to availability, fulfill every need! I think though, that if they wanted a religious service I would try to find out why they didn’t want a minister to take the service and see if there was some way we could find someone who could.
    We did a lovely service the other day where the family had said from the outset that they didn’t want a Church of England service and the son did a lot of it himself but a family friend, who just happened to be a retired local minister, did the committal and blessing, both to spare the family the agony of that part of the service and, at the family’s request, offer a degree of religion for those that would like it. Everybody liked it, it was a lovely, personal service and it was felt that all needs were catered for. I hasten to add that it wasn’t my idea but I wish it had been!

  10. Charles

    Gosh. Let’s see if I can blunder in here.
    Some excellent markers: Andrew’s you and us; Jenny’s authenticity; (if a celeb doesn’t feel authentic, the gathering will quickly sense it, and the funeral will fail, at least in part, to do its job) Richard’s distinctions, Charles’ extensions. Etc.

    But many such discussions tend to assume a “believe”/”not believe” dichotomy, an absolute split. Most/many of us don’t think like that, or feel like that – at least, that’s my conclusion, after meeting so many bereaved people.

    As for juju ( vicar friend of mine said “heap big juju – you no have.” he meant bugger off out of it, I think, but then he also admitted we were taking away bits of his business) – if the people want big juju, get that person who they feel, in their eyes, has it.

    Actually I believe Vale might have it, Jenny might, I might. It comes and it goes! But – it’s how the congregation see us at the lectern that matters.

    The vicar who distorted Jenny’s funeral in that callous way had no juju at all. I personally would have trouble seeing what he did as being a religious or a spiritual event in any useful sense. He should’ve remembered Jesus’ words about hypocrites and whited sepulchres etc. Self-righteous, dogmatic git.

    But at the simplest level, we all seem to be agreed that there is no reason why any sort of celeb shouldn’t lead a prayer and a hymn, provided they feel authentic doing so, and can demonstrate that. We are then acting, I guess, as lay ministers of a sort.

    A funeral is an existential event – it’s what happens there and then that matters. It may also be a spiritual event, whether or not it follows the pattern of a religious organisation. In this context, I’m not sure “religious/nonreligious” means anything significant. “Clergy/nonclergy” does, but that seems to me a fairly practical matter that should be fairly easily resolved, with care, discussion and honesty all round.

    “By their fruits shall ye know them.”

    1. Charles

      Absolutely right about the believe/not believe dichotomy. I often have some spiritual moments yet I really do believe I’m an atheist. And our clients are the same – sometimes in a complete muddle about what they believe oh and auntie Maud will be there and she’s VERY religious. Better have the Lord’s Prayer.
      And I regularly meet people who stress that he wouldn’t want ANYTHING religious AT ALL… he was an atheist. But turns out he was an atheist who adored Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Passion of St. Matthew.

  11. Charles

    Loving the ‘imparsonation’!

    No problem at all with celebrants leading parayers/hymns…providing it doesn’t lead them too far from their own comfort zone. this is not entirely for the benefit of the family, but also for the benefit of the celebrant. It does not do anyone any good to live with that kind of cognitive dissonance for too long! For any given celebrant that’s aquestion that only they can answer.

    I do think its important though that celebrants of any kind, be it religious or atheist can and do know when it is time for them to bow out and suggest someone else. Everyone benefits from that, I think.

  12. Charles

    You say “A celebrant who is effectively ‘lying’ cannot be doing themselves any good”, Jenny, and “It does not do anyone any good to live with that kind of cognitive dissonance for too long!” I’m interested in that — because actors sort of do that all the time (especially when they’re playing horrible people), and celebrants have to be actors to a certain extent in order to fill the role expected — which can often mean also having to read out all manner of stuff — poems about God only taking the best and I am the diamond glints on snow — which, in their fastidious hearts, they’d rather not, but which they must declaim as if they were works of great wisdom.

    You know who you are if you’re a priest/shaman/druid etc. Enviable.

    1. Charles

      It’s around this issue of cognitive dissonance that your much-loved comparison of celebrants with actors breaks down, I’d say.

      Everyone knows an actor is ‘acting’, and so her/his discussion of the experience of being an axe-murderer or a bigamist or a mother or whatever is kept separate (in the audience’s perceptions) from the actual identity of that actor.

      A celebrant, however, is expected to be authentic: to speak with conviction and to represent the groupthink of a critical mass of the congregation. This is a different matter from the rendering of whatever readings have been selected, and the celebrant’s aesthetic engagement with them; performing these well is a simply a matter of professionalism and good manners.

      1. Charles

        “…expected to be authentic”, Kathryn; that’s good, but how many funerals have you been to or heard about when what’s actually expected, going by past experiences, is that the vicar will be on automatic pilot while he’s thinking about something else entirely? I’ve tried hard to concentrate on and understand such vicarly outpourrings lots of times, so far without success – the paint drying on the lecturn becomes more engaging.

        If the family believes an individual has power from a god to dispense grace or something, let that individual do her job unusurped. If an invocation is, to them, a nice noise they associate with a long-forgotten time of comfort, let even an atheist re-iterate it for them because it’s as ‘authentic’ as, say, the flowers – no-one says the florist has to be a gardener.

  13. Charles

    Interesting can of worms this one. As a celebrant I have conducted services devoid of any religion or the afterlife, a Buddhist one, and the majority have religious content of at least a prayer up to and including several hymns, prayers, Psalm 23. Does any of it make me feel uncomfortable? No. Would I recommend a minister sometimes? Not so far. If a family asked me to perform a funeral service as laid down in the Book of Common Prayer then I would offer them the option. I have several reasons for this. Firstly I am a Christian who in the past considered entering the church, and my duty as a Christian, or more simply as a human being, is to offer the comfort the family is asking for, be it devoid of religion or full to the gunwales of it.
    My next argument is this, and one I use to reply to families who ask if I am a vicar, “do my words carry any less weight with God?”. If prayers are spoken with feeling and devotion, do they mean any less, to God or the family?
    personally speaking I feel the “power” of religious readings, Psalm 23 when woven into the committal service is particularly moving, would a family gain anymore comfort from a ordained minister doing it?
    As Celebrants, or whatever we call ourselves, ultimately we have a responsibility to act in the best interests of the families entrusted to our care, and provided we do that, however much we appear to prostitute ourselves, then we are not by our actions writing cheques our consciences, and later our souls, have to cash.

  14. Charles

    It has been a great discussion hasn’t it Charles? the GFG at its best – digging into the sort of conundrums that a practitioner like myself faces and tries to work through so that the cognitive dissonance (lovely analysis Jenny) is kept to a minimum.

    As practical advice I think it would be hard to beat A Celeb’s approach, but I’d change ‘fitting’ to ‘fit’, asking yourself whether a particular suggestion is a good fit, seems a useful rule of thumb.

    I like the rigour of Andrew’s distinction – I think it really matters that we are careful about the role we play, and shouldn’t overstep our commission – so no blessings and no speaking for god either.

    There’s an interesting debate to explore that might be headed ‘juju or acting – discuss’ (as sellars and Yeatman might say ‘but don’t try to write on both sides of the paper at once’) For my part I am not sure that the idea of priestly juju is helpful (or real) or that there is any distinction between the appearance of Juju and good theatre. The RCs are brilliant at this and (forgive me Richard) have been thrilling congregations with bells and smells forever. For me, if there is power, it is gifted by the congregation and the family and has its true roots in kindness and sincerity – happily non-denominational and non-sectarian attributes.

    1. Charles

      Vale, I found myself thinking of your words at Mass today:

      “I am not sure that the idea of priestly juju is helpful (or real) or that there is any distinction between the appearance of Juju and good theatre. The RCs are brilliant at this and (forgive me Richard) have been thrilling congregations with bells and smells forever. For me, if there is power, it is gifted by the congregation and the family and has its true roots in kindness and sincerity”.

      At the invitation to Holy Communion, the priest says:

      “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”

      To which the congregation reply:

      “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”.

      Theatrical juju that thrills with bells and smells to some. To others, the humble and grateful celebration of the gift of Christ’s inspiring love.

  15. Charles

    Thanks, Kathryn, that’s more or less exactly what I was going to say! 🙂
    I think that while the best celebrants have good ‘acting skills’ there is a difference between what you do and ‘acting’. You are, to some extent, speaking on behalf of the people there. It is not necessary to have exactly the same beliefs as they do, I don’t think, but I do think that any jarring differences might be difficult.

    Vale, I think you have actually highlighted one of my concerns in the last point you make; the ‘ju ju’. Is there a difference between that and good theatricality? That’s a very good question. For you, the answer is no and the ‘power’ comes from the people…from below rather than above. That’s fine, but not everyone shares that view. Does it matter if the celebrant believes he is providing a great piece of theatre while the ‘congregation’ believes he is performing a sacramental act that channels divine power? I think it does, because to me that smacks of deception, which is why I’m with Charles that if you want/believe in the Ju Ju, you need a Ju Ju professional. (No derogatory implications here…perhaps a better non religion-specific phrase would be dynamic and efficient divine energy….ok, Ju Ju it is 🙂

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